This is getting serious . . .

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I Love Public Education

I love public education . . . and I am having a hard time sleeping at night. Here is why . . .

About a week ago I was doing my due diligence as a school superintendent and engaging in a conversation with a state-level legislator. As my colleagues and I were discussing the growing teacher shortage in our area I felt as though the elected official was putting the impetus back on districts to do a better job at recruiting and retaining qualified personnel. To be clear – he was right; we do need to do a better job. However, my position in the conversation was that the teacher shortage is a bigger issue that needs a more complex solution than simply expecting each individual entity to perform their role a little better.

On the long drive home I continued to perseverate on this topic. That is when it occurred to me that I was having a conversation based totally on how I felt and I did not have the necessary facts to back up my feelings.

As I result, I reached out my contacts at the Illinois Education Association to see if they had any data on the topic. Jim Dykehouse and his team led me a great direction and after reading the articles and data sent to me, clicking on hyperlink after hyperlink, I was able to create the following list of facts (or at least reasonable assertions) when it comes to the impending teacher shortage crisis – and I do mean crisis.

****The following data are from Illinois, but the assumption is made that similar data would be found in many other states.

There seems to be a systematic approach toward making education a less and less desirable profession. A profession that was once appreciated and observed as a calling is now often under public scrutiny and constantly faced with pressures to raise performance over an arbitrarily established benchmark. Moreover, one of the few financial reasons for entering the profession was the benefits. This too is changing – and rapidly.

Political De-Motivators

  • Beginning with No Child Left Behind and continuing thereafter public schools have been under continued scrutiny to increase academic achievement as measured on standardized assessments.
  • The value of standardized assessments has long been under scrutiny, but the level of importance placed on them through media and politics have made them a permanent fixture in the discussion of educational effectiveness. As a result, here are a few quick tidbits everyone should be aware of when comparing our national performance to other countries.
    • We out innovate everyone based on number of patents issued. As we enter a time of exponential and complex growth – innovation will rule the day, not a test score.
    • Keith Baker, in his marvelous research, found no correlation between how a country performs on standardized assessments and their economic development or growth.

The below graphic shows PISA performance compared to Nobel Prizes won (a proxy of intellectual creativity and GDP) to show the correlation or lack thereof. This information is from the World Bank.

  • The USA never ‘dominated’ other countries when it came to international assessments such as PISA and NAEP. These measures which we now use to condemn our education system are producing similar indicators of performance as they traditionally have. The only thing that has changed is the value we place on the test(s). Additionally, with an increased focused on performing better the results have not benefitted in a statistically significant manner. Moreover, using these data points are fraught with error regardless of what the data end up showing. Research from Stanford has found the following:
    • There is an achievement gap between more and less disadvantaged students in every country; surprisingly, that gap is smaller in the United States than in similar post-industrial countries, and not much larger than in the very highest scoring countries.
      • Achievement of U.S. disadvantaged students has been rising rapidly over time, while achievement of disadvantaged students in countries to which the United States is frequently unfavorably compared – Canada, Finland and Korea, for example – has been falling rapidly.
      • But the highest social class students in United States do worse than their peers in other nations, and this gap widened from 2000 to 2009 on the PISA.
      • S. PISA scores are depressed partly because of a sampling flaw resulting in a disproportionate number of students from high-poverty schools among the test-takers. About 40 percent of the PISA sample in the United States was drawn from schools where half or more of the students are eligible for the free lunch program, though only 32 percent of students nationwide attend such schools.
  • The continued debate and promotion of choice and charter as solutions to what ails public schools has intensified.

Retirement Benefits

  • The state of Illinois is in a budget crisis (and has been for a long time) and this is often blamed on the retirement benefits afforded to teachers. This takes one of the only financial perks of being a teacher and demonizes it.
  • The crisis surrounding teacher retirement has nothing to do with the amount of money teachers or schools have contributed to their retirement. The crisis is a result of lawmakers choosing to not fund their portion of pensions over the course of several years creating an enormous debt margin.
  • The retirement system continues to adjust and in order to receive maximum benefits teachers entering the profession today will have to work until 67.
  • Illinois teachers do not receive social security benefits.

The facts are alarming. The teacher shortage is already real and the forecast is even more disturbing. By 2020 – it is staggering. Here are the data:

  • Workforce projects to be stagnant or slightly smaller. This simply means the total number of educators necessary to support schools in Illinois will stay the same or be slightly less in 2020 than is necessary to run schools today.
  • Student enrollment in the state is projected to dip up to 3 percent
  • Attrition is estimated at 6,000 to 7,000 teachers per year leading to 20,000 vacancies by 2020
  • This does not specifically factor in the attrition rate of teachers in their first five years. There are many data sources on this, but the most conservative number indicates that roughly 20 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years.
  • The number of potential teachers completing degree programs in IL in FY 17 was 6,600
    • This number was down from 7,800 just two years prior
    • Only 81 percent of those candidates turned their degree into licensure
  • There are already over 2,000 open positions in the state of Illinois
  • ISBE suggests having at least two potential candidates for every position helps to ensure the quality of candidates.

The math simply does not add up to create enough qualified candidates to serve in our public schools unless teachers move into the state, retired teachers re-enter the profession,  degreed teachers who had not sought licensure now do, or the expected and average amount of retirees is significantly reduced. The likelihood of this happening is quite small.

What would result is disquieting. Schools that would struggle the most to fill positions would be small, rural schools who cannot afford to pay well and inner-city and urban schools that many qualified candidates choose to ignore as employment possibilities. As a result, poor students and students of color would be the students most impacted by the teacher shortage befalling our state.

The state of public schools

As I pondered this chain of events, my mind wandered down a very scary rabbit hole. Hence the opening line of the blog about being kept up at night. If public schools are forced to compromise in who they hire in order to fill classrooms, then what is going to set us apart from charters and private schools? One of the defining elements of a public school classroom has been the service of a highly trained and highly qualified teacher to serve our students. If that is no longer the case, it seems to me that future of public education is more at risk due to the teacher shortage than it is as a result of any particular policy or funding formula. Truly, this has a potentially catastrophic impact for schools and (in my opinion) society.

I get it – this seems like a conspiracy theory. Trust me, my brain does not typically work like this, but it seems to be a logical progression of circumstances given the facts and data we are currently being presented.

Call to action

So, my call to action is simple. The educator and teacher shortage is real. Whether this is impacting you or your district now does not matter – it will impact us all in time. Be educated. Be informed. Wear your love of public education like a badge of honor. Advocate.

The bottom line is that when we notice a problem in society we find creative solutions. Look at what states and local municipalities do to compete for business in the form of tax relief and incentives. If we do not look at creative solutions to attract talented people to our profession we are in trouble. This deserves attention now before this issue becomes a crisis.


Resources Consulted:



One Comment

  • Griffin Sonntag

    Great article, PJ! You observed the beginning of a crisis by being in touch with what is happening in your district and dutifully sought data to support what you are believe will occur throughout the field of education. Anecdotally, I too see this shortage you’re backing up with your data in the western suburbs of Chicago. For me, the canary is the lack of applicants for Instructional Assistant positions. When I became a principal 13 years ago, the teaching candidates who weren’t offered positions were willing to take IA positions in the school or district in which they desired to teach. These days, we’ve struggled to fill all of our IA vacancies directly related to the fact that the teacher shortage crisis is beginning.

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